The Sky’s the Limit

On April 26th the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt, will announce whether or not he is willing to allow News Corporation’s purchase of BSkyB to go ahead.

In recent months Hunt has sought to give the impression that he is tightly constrained by the provisions of the Communications Act and he has made it known that he is required to make a ‘quasi-judicial decision’.

Hunt has claimed that he cannot take into account the accumulating evidence of criminal activity at another News Corporation company, the News of the World. Even though the company has admitted liability ‘in cases meeting specific criteria’, the Secretary of State has suggested that the phone hacking affair can have no bearing on his decision. Indeed some informed commentators have even suggested that he will approve the takeover.

The plurality of views expressed in the media have, potentially, been affected very seriously by the surveillance conducted by individuals working for News Corporation. The company’s inability to restrain the criminality of its employees led to a situation where many people in positions of power might well have feared that embarrassing aspects of their private lives were an open book. And this in turn might well have had an inhibiting effect on public discourse. There is much that is uncertain at present about the affair. But we can say this for certain. The notion that a plurality of views is consistent with widespread illegal surveillance is exotic at best. At worst it is flat-out perverse.

There is certainly no way that Jeremy Hunt can responsibly approve this takeover before the police’s inquiry has been concluded, Parliament has taken a view on the implications of what has been happening at the News of the World and elsewhere, and the public has had a chance to discuss the matter fully.

There are a number of questions that need to be answered:

Who knew about the illegal activity at the News of the World? When did they know about it?

What bearing does this have on the company’s claims over the years to have assisted the police with their inquiries?

How did the evidence of wrong-doing referred to in the company’s apology finally come to light? Why was it unknown to senior managers for so long?

Have employees of the News of the World, or of other media institutions, been engaged in other illegal acts? Have they been making corrupt payments to police officers or other public servants?

I am sure that, in his quasi-judicial reflections on the matter, Hunt has come to appreciate all this and will delay approval until justice is done and seen to be done. If he presses ahead and permits the takeover the public will struggle to avoid concluding that the political establishment to which he belongs has become the creature of an unaccountable and private system of power, that the media institutions are operating as a vast machinery of implicit blackmail, and that there is nothing for it but to sweep the whole edifice away and build something new.

To help Jeremy Hunt do the right thing, you might want to consider contacting your MP and asking her or him to set out their views on the relationship between open and honest public discourse and widespread criminality in the news media.

Or you could just tell them that you won’t vote for them again if they permit Rupert Murdoch to wield any more power.

You can find your MP here. Emailing them is pretty straightforward. Let me know how you get on, if you like – thereturnofthepublic[at]gmail.com.

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